Personal Passions: ‘The Spirit’

The Arts

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If you’ve never read Will Eisner’s original The Spirit, you’ve missed out on probably the key foundation stone of comics. Eisner’s career spanned nearly seventy years, from the dawn of the comic book to the advent of digital comics. He truly was the ‘Orson Welles of comics’ and the father of the graphic novel. He broke new ground in the development of visual narrative and the language of comics, and his noir Spirit stories are like entire movies packed into a few pages. During his best period every frame reminds one of a movie.

The Second World War interrupted Eisner’s Spirit pages, but in 1946 he returned to them bringing a new level of sophistication. The postwar Spirit stories featured Eisner at the pinnacle of his powers. As he worked on the strip for another 12 years, he was continually using it to devise new creative challenges, such as stories told in song, in nonsense language and in poetry. One episode is narrated entirely by a radio. Others use no speech at all. There are whodunnits, femme fatales, globetrotting adventures, condensed thrillers, every kind of genre style – and the splash pages usually incorporate its hero’s name. in a mise en scene. Denny Colt, AKA The Spirit, was often accompanied on his ‘Casablanca’-style adventures by the voluptuous but morally ambiguous P’Gell (a corruption of Pigalle), modelled on a variety of screen actresses from the period. Much of Eisner’s style recalls cinema sequences.

Never content to stay within the narrow confines of the detective genre, Eisner used the Spirit to explore a wide variety of stories from different points of view, from simple tales of ordinary people to wild flights of fancy verging on science fiction. The Spirit Archives reproduced every single story from his best period, 1946-1951, and are highly collectable, although some of the volumes are now extremely rare and very expensive. Certain volumes, between 14 and 16, are over €200 each but can sometimes be picked up in secondhand shops.

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4 comments on “Personal Passions: ‘The Spirit’”

  1. Bob says:

    I remember seeing an interview with Eisner in a documentary some years ago, when he was asked about why he was drawn to creating what were then known as ‘cartoon strips’ in the first place. His reply was delightfully self effacing, and went something like this-‘Well, I had tried writing and drawing separately, and was inept at both. When I did comic strips, I combined my two ineptitudes, and created an eptitude.’ An unsung genius. (my spellchecker does not like the word ‘eptitude’)

  2. dave says:

    Agreed, he was truly influential. I have a few of his books, highly recommended.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    I keep coming back to this post just to read “I’m Plaster – Plaster of Paris” again. I laugh every time.

  4. Reuben says:

    There seems to be a line of thinking among some American comic book readers (mainly superhero ones) that basically comics began and ended with Jack Kirby. So people like Eisner surprisingly still get over looked. Like you say his (and his studio’s) post WW2 Spirit work is wonderful.

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